What non-profit organisations can gain by looking internationally

At Good Foundations, we have always been big believers in the benefits of collaboration in the non-profit sector and more recently we’ve been thinking about how it could be amplified if organisations looked internationally as well as domestically to both share knowledge and learn from each other. The same sort of social issues occur in many countries, so if someone in another country has found a way to solve a problem, why not leverage that?

Opportunity International Australia provides small loans to families to enable them to start or grow their own business, helping them leave poverty behind. We recently spoke with Calum Scott, Global Impact Director at Opportunity International Australia about his experiences in learning from global networks.

1. How have you tapped into international networks and what have you been able to learn from their experiences that has been applicable to your organisation?

Opportunity International has depended on partnerships with global funders and local service providers to build our footprint and reputation over many years. So looking outside of Australia has always been part of our character. 

We know that we face challenges that are common to others, and by tapping into international networks we’ve been able to learn lessons from others about what works and what doesn’t. 

For example, monitoring and evaluation is expensive, so we have collaborated with others to share research costs and together benefit from the findings – e.g. understanding the challenges of providing digital financial services to the illiterate, or evaluating the benefits of financial literacy training.  

2. Do you see much collaboration going on between organisations internationally?

In the sector we work in there is definitely a sense of global community. In recent years, there has been a recognition that financial services alone will not always lift individuals out of poverty. This has led to cross-sectoral collaboration where our financial service partners have worked with education and primary healthcare providers to provide a range of services to clients. 

3. In what ways do you think we could improve international sharing for Australian organisations given our geographical distance? Are there other barriers you see to this type of knowledge sharing?

Every local program has its own characteristics, depending on the needs of the clients, the regulatory, economic and geographic environment etc. But I think we sometimes place a little too much emphasis on the uniqueness of the challenges we face. Opportunity has been a contributor to – and beneficiary from – a global set of best practices for microfinance, and we have seen partners from across the world benefit from applying these best practices to their own programs, even where the local circumstances are very different. 

The online world has made it easier to connect with others, but deep partnerships can be difficult to form and maintain without face to face engagement. I’ve seen online forums used to ‘share and forget’ information, rather than being a true forum for collaboration. 

4. What advice would give someone/an organisation trying to learn from their international counterparts?

Collaborate with a purpose. By all means take the time to understand what others are doing, but once you’ve done so, choose one or two organisations, and one or two shared problems or questions to focus on, where you can work together to pool knowledge and experience, and find answers. 

5. In your experience, has your investment in international learning been worthwhile?

Most of Opportunity’s innovations have evolved from others’ ideas, or depended on input from international partners to test innovations or get them off the ground, so we wouldn’t be where we are without taking the time to learn from others. 

Increasingly, social investors recognise and reward collaboration. I believe it can only help your organisation’s reputation if you can demonstrate that you put real effort into working with others and avoiding duplication and waste, but again it should be true collaboration and not something superficial.

6. What have you learnt from working with others internationally that has been unexpected?

Successful collaboration is about finding issues in common – that can be as much about good timing as anything else. Even successful, high-capability organisations have long lists of problems and challenges as they look to scale up their impact. However, real change takes serious effort and at any one point in time there will likely only be 2 or 3 of those issues that an organisation can truly rally their resources around. Successful collaboration is about identifying the one or two key issues that you and your co-collaborators have in common and focusing joint efforts around those. 


If you still aren’t convinced international collaboration is worth thinking about, read this article from Alex Swallow, a strong believer in looking internationally as well as domestically in terms of collaboration.